Rebecca Wittmann

Small image of Wittmann
Monday, January 15, 2007 - 1:46pm
Carla DeMarco
Trying Times: Professor Wittmann copes with difficult research topics

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Rebecca Wittmann’s next book just might be about food. After the award-winning author and assistant professor in University of Toronto Mississauga’s Historical Studies Department has studied the Holocaust extensively and tackled such difficult subject matter as the Auschwitz and Stammheim trials, she might need a bit of a respite from researching the tyranny of the Nazi regime and its aftermath in postwar Germany.

“I love cooking,” says Wittmann, who says that coming home and listening to the radio while creating a gourmet meal is an ideal way to clear her mind after a day spent reading and writing about atrocious cruelties. “I find it very therapeutic,” she says. Wittmann explores various regions in her culinary explorations, from Italian to Vietnamese, and if she were to write a book about food it would most likely focus on Berlin fare, a food culture that is a particular passion.

Although food preparation provides a break from the heavy topics she covers in her research, Wittmann puts a lot of thought into the origin of the food she consumes. She was strongly impressed by Michael Pollan’s recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and she is committed to taking more time when it comes to buying and preparing food. “I am really getting into local, sustainable food, and feel more and more strongly about supporting the natural ecosystem of food,” Wittmann says. “And I don’t just mean organic and industrial organic. I mean local farms where a whole ecosystem is represented.”  She is very proud of the University of Toronto’s recent sustainable food launch that will help to support local farmers, and would like to do what she can to encourage the movement.

Because of the fact that my work is so depressing, my outside life tends to be completely unrelated to my scholarship

Just as her culinary pursuits provide much delight for Wittmann, so do the various recreational and sports activities in which she likes to engage. Cycling and horseback riding are among her favourites, but Wittmann is particularly fond of the thrill of downhill skiing, which she enjoys while in Europe or upstate New York, where her husband’s family resides. Wittmann is also passionate about music: she plays piano, and going to see bands perform and listening to music are other preferred pastimes. “Because of the fact that my work is so depressing, my outside life tends to be completely unrelated to my scholarship,” Wittmann says.

It is little wonder that Wittmann needs to lighten things up a bit from time to time since her research deals with some very dark issues. Wittmann’s focus has shifted from its examination of the Holocaust to the way in which Germany comes to terms with its past, particularly its Nazi history and Holocaust involvement, and she has been concentrating on trials in postwar West Germany.

Wittmann’s book, Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial, which garnered the Wiener Library’s prestigious Fraenkel Prize in 2005, chronicles the Auschwitz trial in English for the first time. The court case, which took place from December 1963 to August 1965, involved proceedings against 20 former guards of varying levels of superiority from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Researching the trial was somewhat arduous. First, there is a 35-year protective time limit on trial documents in Germany, so the information was not accessible until 1995. Another impediment Wittmann faced was that when she went to Hesse’s main state archives in 1997, the trial had not yet been transcribed so the only way to access the information was by listening to the tapes of the trial. (The process of transcription was occurring simultaneously while Wittmann was conducting her research, thus making it difficult to obtain the tapes, but after eight years the transcripts were finally complete, albeit after Wittmann’s book had already gone to press.) However Wittmann feels that being able to actually hear the court proceedings had its advantages. “It was incredibly depressing and upsetting to listen to the voices of survivors talking about their experiences there,” Wittmann says. “But it also brought to life the atmosphere of the trial in a way that the written word just can’t do.”

Moved to study the legal system and postwar West German trials further, Wittmann is going to Berlin this year to research two other significant court cases: the Majdanek and Stammheim trials. The Majdanek trial, which lasted from 1975 until 1981, presented a case against 16 guards from the Majdanek death camp near Lublin in eastern Poland, but resulted in only one person, a woman nicknamed “Bloody Brigitte,” being convicted of perpetrating murder, even though anywhere from 75,000 to 250,000 people were killed at the camp.

The Stammheim trial, which is regarded as one of the most important moments in postwar West Germany’s history, is the 1975 proceeding against four members of the Baader-Meinhof gang/Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists who were tried for the kidnapping and murder of four people. The RAF was a left-wing terrorist organization that was born from a student movement in the late 1960s, and they targeted capital institutions and heads of industry for what they considered to be lingering fascism in postwar West Germany. “They are real radicals,” Wittmann says. “Some of their ideas come from the right place, but their behaviour and their actions are terrorist actions.”

Wittmann tries to teach students that some of these historical events are not so cut and dried...

Wittmann is interested in examining these two trials also because of the interesting contrast of ideologies they present: one is a Nazi trial of crimes committed in the name of the state; the other is of crimes committed against the state. Wittmann says that the crimes committed in the name of the state are downplayed and amendments are introduced making it virtually impossible to convict the perpetrators, while the left-wing radicals who have committed crimes against the state flagrantly have the book thrown at them: the lawmakers introduce new laws, rules against the use of retroactive law are ignored, people are held without charge and their defense lawyers are imprisoned. “Obviously the crimes of the RAF are terrible, heinous crimes, and I certainly don’t intend to romanticize them, but they have nothing on the crimes of the Nazis in terms of magnitude,” Wittmann says.

As a professor of such undergraduate and graduate courses as Modern and Contemporary Europe, the Holocaust, and remembering atrocities, Wittmann tries to teach students that some of these historical events are not so cut and dried, and she encourages students to “deconstruct their notion of evil.” As an example, she says that the good versus bad figures that have been dramatically portrayed in such films as Schindler’s List or The Pianist do not represent the full scope of the German populace; that the average person is not depicted in these stories. She asks her students to imagine what they might have done in the same situation when this new Nazi party emerged, making promises to pull Germany out of its depression and strengthen the nation.

“Certainly nobody in 1932 had any indication of what the Nazis were going to do in the 1940s,” Wittmann says. “I think that this was a policy that developed as it went on, and that it was only as they saw that it was possible that they continued. That is where a society’s complicity comes in, in that they make it possible.” Wittmann feels fear-mongering, war, people turning a blind eye, and a certain “progression of desensitization” make present-day atrocities and genocides still possible.

Wittmann admits that at times it is difficult not to let the research depress her, and she cautions her students about this as well: they should try to maintain a distance, and not turn it into a personal experience, or a “voyeuristic examination of the Other.” While Wittmann feels compelled to study the issues surrounding the Holocaust and its after-effects, she tries to strike a balance by having a rich life, which includes her love of cooking, sports, music and friendship, outside of academia. Wittmann said that upon her return from Frankfurt after studying the Auschwitz trial she was extremely depressed, but she reconnected with her life and her roots. “It was coming back home, and being surrounded by friends and family,” Wittmann says. “And gaining some distance from the material that sort of restored my faith in humanity.”